Home Video Hovel- Frankenstein’s Army, by Tyler Smith
Usually the first question I ask when I watch a found footage movie is, “Did this film need to be made this way?” With most of these movies, the answer is a resounding “No.” It remains a mystery to me as to why so many filmmakers choose this tiresome gimmick. Perhaps it is in an attempt to hide a smaller budget. Perhaps they’re just trying to keep up with what’s popular. Whatever the reason, the found footage conceit often gets in the way of my enjoyment of the film and I find myself frustrated and exhausted by the end, wishing that they had told the story in a more straightforward way.
A few movies manage to justify the found footage format, and they do so by asking what can be artistically gained through it. The immediacy of the documentary style, the emotional discomfort of the constant POV; these are just a few of the assets of the found footage gimmick, and Richard Raaphorst makes good use of them with his horror film Frankenstein’s Army.
The story involves a small squad of Russian soldiers toward the end of World War II. A distress call leads them to a nearby town that seems deserted. They investigate further, eventually finding themselves in an old church with a labyrinth of corridors and tunnels. It is here that they are greeted by a series of grotesque monsters. Each monster is a unique blend of flesh, metal, cloth, and crude mechanics. Some creatures have knives coming out of their fingers, while others have drills protruding from their faces. And some others have no faces at all, but are little more than spinning propeller blades with legs.
As the soldiers run through the corridors, these monsters burst into frame from the nooks and crannies of the set. There is no rhyme nor reason to when they will show up, which serves to create a constant dread; we feel as though the soldiers are never truly safe. And, indeed, neither are we. Such is the brilliance of telling this story in the found footage, documentary style. It is bad enough that these creatures are lunging out at our protagonists; they are lunging at us. And the characters’ paranoia becomes our own.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure(?) of going to Universal Studios with some friends around Halloween. The park undergoes tremendous changes at this time of year, emphasizing horror and scares. The primary draw is a number of haunted mazes, in which creatures of all kinds jump out and frighten you. But, it doesn’t end with the mazes. Depending on where you are in the park, there might be demented clowns running up to you, revving their chainsaws as they approach. By the end of the night, my nerves were shot and my head was on a constant swivel. While the night was fun overall, the stress was almost unbearable.
Frankenstein’s Army is about as close to this experience as a movie can come, and I believe this is precisely the director’s intention. There is a reason that those mazes have become so popular. Horror fans are no longer content to sit back and watch other people in peril; they want to be a part of it themselves. Richard Raaphorst seems committed to putting the viewer as close to the action as a film can allow; frankly, I’m surprised the movie isn’t in 3-D.
As for the more standard elements of the film, such as character, dialogue, and story, Frankenstein’s Army mostly falls short. The characters are largely uninteresting, though the writers clearly attempt to give each man a specific trait that differentiates him from the others. In the end, though, I didn’t really know or care about these men, and any attempt to humanize them felt perfunctory.
The one notable exception is the character of Frankenstein himself (here referred to simply as “Viktor”). We’ve become so aware of the character of the “Mad Scientist” in general, and of Frankenstein in particular, that we feel like there’s really nothing new that a film can add. And while Viktor is fairly standard in his actions, his level of commitment to and enthusiasm for his experiments, combined with a total lack of human empathy (they would get in the way of his progress), remind us of why the idea of a man of science gone totally insane can be so disturbing. And the fact that Frankenstein works for the Nazis in this film calls to mind the unsettling image of Josef Mengele, excited to have human test subjects for his horrific experiments.
In many ways, Frankenstein’s Army is far from perfect. As stated, I didn’t feel particularly invested in the main characters or the story, but that isn’t really the point in this film. By shooting the film as a series of POV shots and then having the camera regularly assaulted by a hideous collection of scientific abominations, Richard Raaphorst seems to suggest that he really doesn’t need interesting characters. He has us.